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American Literature 74.1 (2002) 172-174
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The complexities of Allen Tate's life (1899–1979) render any attempt at a comprehensive biography an extraordinarily difficult task. The one previously published biography, Radcliffe Squires's Allen Tate: A Literary Biography (1971), deals mainly with Tate's published works and shies away from the man himself. Thomas Underwood's Allen Tate: Orphan of the South is the first of a projected two-volume biography begun in 1985. This volume culminates in 1938, with the publication of Tate's lone novel, The Fathers, which in addition to being a work of merit, brought him to terms with his family history and Southern heritage.
In addition to writing fiction, Tate was an active biographer (he wrote biographies of Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson and left an unfinished Robert E. Lee project) as well as a sensitive poet, best known today for his "Ode to the Confederate Dead" (1930). But Tate was known mainly in his lifetime, and is largely remembered today, as a man of letters and as a literary and social critic who wrote essays such as "Who Owns America?" (1936) and "A Traditionalist Looks at Liberalism" (1936).
Repeatedly honored, doubtless Tate was aided in his quest for recognition by his extraordinary networking with other academics and literary figures. While Tate's relationships with other writers were occasionally strained, he [End Page 172] cultivated a wide circle of acquaintances and maintained a number of genuine friendships. Often he was seen as a leader by his peers, perhaps because of his willingness to undertake prodigious tasks. He served as editor of the Fugitive at Vanderbilt in the 1920s and was near the center of the Southern Agrarian group of the 1930s as well as the New Criticism movement. Between his Fugitive and Agrarian periods, Tate traveled to Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship to associate with the many literary expatriates there. A decade later, poets were beating a path to his door in Tennessee. Robert Lowell, for example, arrived from Boston and proposed spending the summer with Tate and his wife, novelist Caroline Gordon. When Tate, attempting to dissuade him, said, "[Y]ou'd have to live in a tent," Lowell immediately "drove to Sears and Roebuck, purchased an olive-colored camping tent, and pitched it on the grounds." Later, Hart Crane moved in with the Tates, causing similar havoc.
One of the greatest difficulties the biographer faces is how to deal with the subject's opinions when they are contradictory, unfashionable, or offensive in the present day. Besides reflecting the entrenched social prejudices of the first half of the century, Tate's views on some issues are hard to pin down, and they also changed over time. Underwood pursues these matters and does not shrink from probing Tate's controversial opinions on racism, capitalism, and communism. As Underwood points out, Tate "accepted without qualms . . . anti-semitic stereotypes," and he held racist views until the 1960s, when he came to believe that integration was politically inevitable. Before the 1960s, Tate had pointedly refused to associate with African American writers. He was among those who "described antebellum blacks as ‘docile, and for the most part devoted to the cause of the Confederacy'"; carelessly, he had even asserted that "if freed, [African Americans] would have been subject to . . . a worse form of exploitation by Northern industrial capitalists." Tate opposed capitalism without an understanding of it (like most intellectuals of his day), but he broke from prominent thinkers and artists on the issue of communism, which he had taken pains to understand. Unlike Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Crowley, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos (before his conversion), and Granville Hicks, Tate denied that there was a "Marxist aesthetic." All of this makes Tate difficult to categorize and fascinating to read.
Thomas Underwood is generous to other Tate biographies, including the published one, an abandoned one, and two that are in progress. Despite having "completed all of the research for...